Photos from Colton Herta’s Victory Lane celebrations revealed a secret advantage his Andretti Autosport team deployed at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Hanging from his left hip, a large hose was visible that would not have caught anyone’s attention at an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race. But with the telltale sign of a cool shirt being worn by Andretti’s winning driver at an NTT IndyCar Series event, it was obvious the team had achieved something new in competition by outfitting some of its cars with a system that, to date, had not been used in open-wheel racing.
Approved by IndyCar, it’s a development the Andretti team wanted to keep under wraps with vendors it does not want to reveal. Like most things in IndyCar, it will likely become standard equipment throughout the field as teams create their own versions of the concept.
“Yes, we worked on something and some of the drivers that are using it, some of them aren’t, and helping them still is a work in progress,” Andretti COO Rob Edwards acknowledged in a post-race call with RACER.
“But I think when you look at some of the races last year, we felt at the time, you’re looking at performance loss as a factor to consider. We get excited about the latest damper package or go-fast widget, but I think we have to appreciate what people in sports car racing have done (with cool shirts), and keeping the driver in the best performance envelope is an important part of that as well.”
At events like St. Petersburg where high heat or humidity can sap a driver’s strength and endurance due to the lack of onrushing wind behind the aeroscreen safety device, the installation of a cool shirt system adds a powerful solution to the various cockpit ducting options the series has introduced since 2020.
Designed to lower the core temperature of its drivers by circulating extremely cold liquid through a custom shirt with yards of interwoven medical tubing—some series allow everything from water mixed with dry ice to refrigerants—cool shirt systems could be a gamechanger for the IndyCar field.
Packaging was the major challenge for Andretti Autosport, owing to the general absence of free space in a narrow single-seater chassis with sidepods that are packed with radiators, ducting, piping, electronics, and other systems. The size of off-the-shelf cool shirt systems are too large for an Indy car, and then there’s the other concern of added weight to consider.
The latter item is one that, with most drivers requiring the installation of ballast to meet the minimum vehicle weight number, can be mitigated by removing ballast in favor of the compact cool shirt setup.
“Exactly, yes, and then it was coming up with something that fit the right size, but also, there’s a significant weight penalty, not just being overweight, but a change to weight distribution as well,” Edwards said. “It’s obviously something that we would be less excited about if it couldn’t cope within boundaries of what we’re trying to do with the car package overall.”
Count Ed Carpenter Racing’s Conor Daly among those who can’t wait to have a cool shirt system at his disposal in the No. 20 Chevy.
“I ran with every cooling thing we could, including that top scoop,” Daly said. “It had to have been the humidity that got me. It was just excruciating from about the first pit stop on. I can see where my heart rate spikes up after the first 30, 45 minutes of the race. From lap 20 on, I had my visor completely open the whole day just to try to get airflow. And even with that top scoop, there’s no debris going into my eyes or anything so there’s not a lot coming in there.
“After the race I found out several of the Andretti guys were running the cool shirts that pump cold water through your Nomex, which I had no idea was even allowed to run, to be honest. We had the cooling options available that are out there and it didn’t allow me to perform really at the highest level because I was really struggling. Just struggling to breathe, struggling to stay alive.”
Have never been hotter in a race car in my life. Struggled to breathe about halfway through the race till the end. Hope we can figure out a way to fix that. Strategy was working for us and had some good pace until the end. Tough day, we’ll be better at the next one. #aimhigh pic.twitter.com/XXWVcWbXw8
— Conor Daly (@ConorDaly22) April 25, 2021
Daly commiserated with another driver after the race who, like the 29-year-old, has difficulties with keeping cool in or out of the car.
“The last two pit stops, I had the team pour a cooler of cold water just on top of me, just literally poured it all over me,” he continued. “I was battling with Graham [Rahal] and said, ‘Hey, can you guys just dump the drinks cooler on me at the next pit stop?’ They basically just dumped what was left in the cooler, without any drinks in it, on top of my head. And it was great for 10 minutes.
“And I’m not complaining about the aeroscreen; I’m just saying we were using all the available options, and for me, how my body regulates heat, which I’ve always sweated a lot, it’s a problem sometimes. I’m going to continue to work on my training, but I think everyone runs at a different level of heat. I constantly train, but everyone’s body deals with heat differently; we’re not all the same. So for me, it was very, very difficult. And it wasn’t even like the last 20 laps. I’m talking 80 laps of the race. It was a real struggle. It might’ve been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”